Political party update 3: Nidaa Tunis welcomes Islamists, is denounced by CPR and Ennahda

Moderate Islamists would be welcomed in Beji Caid Essebsi’s party, according to a statement released by the state news agency. “Mohsen Marzouk (of Nidaa) says that discussions are underway between Nidaa Tunis and some moderate Tunisian Islamists. Marzouk said he did not see objection any to reconciliation (between the two fronts), especially as the new political party “is not based on ideological grounds and that” it is open to all national interests.” It is unclear whether any Islamists have joined the new party.

Meanwhile, two former CPR members in the Constituent Assembly officially announced their adhesion to Nidaa.

El Watan, an Algerian daily, sees progress in the secular camp. “A year and a half after the fall of the Ben Ali regime and eight months before the next elections, Tunisia is heading towards a reconfiguration of the unique political landscape that permeate everyday life. In politics, the Tunisian left is recovering after losing the elections of the Constituent Assembly on 23 October 2011. Aware of the stinging defeat suffered at the polls, the different formations that comprise the broad spectrum of the left seem to draw the right lessons and structure their ranks for the upcoming political battles.”

CPR secretary general Mohammed Abbou said in an interview on Tunisian radio that putting Nidaa Tunis in power would be a return to tyranny in Tunisia

Meanwhile, Rached Ghannouchi does not see the party as a true adversary of Ennahda because of the absence of a clear ideology. He went on to condemn the dictatorial practices of Tunisia’s first leader, Habib Bourguiba, still considered a hero to many.

The CPR’s spokesman, Hedi Ben Abbes, also questioned Nidaa’s ability to gain votes, saying that it has neither the strength nor the program to attract Tunisian voters.

Ennahda also blamed Nidaa for the violence in Sidi Bouzid. Leaders reports that “Ennahda sees the hand of “some familiar faces in the region in coordination with Nida Tounès as the arm of RCD, saboteurs, thieves, drug dealers and contraband alcoholic beverage sellers. The response of Beji Caid Essebsi party was swift: “These attacks against our party are free of charge (…) The brigands are closerto Nahdhaouis  than we are. We do not have militias, we do not insult anyone and we have no violence. It is inappropriate to describe this way the democrats, activists and human rights components of civil society who took to the streets to protest against repression and to defend their rights.”

Political party updates 1 and 2.

Can Essebsi’s ‘Call for Tunisia’ movement unite the opposition?

My new article in Foreign Policy is out. An excerpt below, the full article can be found here.

On June 16, Beji Caid Essebsi announced the formation of the Call for Tunisia — a provocative new initiative which aims to unite Tunisia’s non-Islamist parties in a national unity movement to counteract the ruling Islamist-led government. The Call is raising profound questions about the extent to which post-Ben Ali Tunisia should accept the inclusion of former regime officials in future administrations. At a time when many of Egypt’s former regime officials loom in the shadows, and Yemen has struggled with the legacy of its provision of amnesty to the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia may once again take the lead in confronting a major political dilemma in semi-revolutionary change.

The Call for Tunisia features a broad spectrum of former regime officials together with secular liberals. The former regime officials, or RCDists (from the Constitutional Democratic Rally), were excluded from running in the last elections and see in the new initiative a chance to revive their political prospects. (There was no such cleansing of the actual government administrations — only positions in the Constituent Assembly). These officials and their supporters oftentimes criticize the current government as incompetent and unable to manage the complexity of government. They try to deflect criticisms of the rampant corruption and stasi-like police state of the past, by pointing to the (very real) progress achieved under Bourguiba and Ben Ali. They cite statistics on women’s rights, improvements in education, and infrastructure development, and they compare Tunisia with its neighbors in the Maghreb and throughout Africa. Their motives are clear — keep the good and throw out the bad of the former regime.

Read the whole article here.

Political party update: Tunisian felloul step out, Communists rise, and Ennahdha stumbles

Last weekend, in the midst of instability caused by rioting across the country, Beji Caid Essebsi launched a political initiative aimed at being a unifying, secular force in Tunisian politics. Eighty-six year old Essebsi played an important role in Tunisia’s transition last year, balancing the interests of revolutionaries, Islamists, and former regime folks for just long enough to hold free elections. While many respected his role in the transition, his political ambitions have caused uproar among those who think that he represents a return to the past.

Leaders.com reports on the initiative:

“The least we can say is that “the initiative” has left no one indifferent. 48 hours after the announcement of the party, “The Call for Tunisia,” the controversy is not likely to subside in the political microcosm. While its supporters see it as the hope for salvation that will save the country from Ennahdha’s grip, his opponents denounce the return of former regime officials (fouloul)….Of the three-party coalition government, Ettakatol is the one most threatened by the initiative of Caid Essebsi.”

During the meeting Essebsi called for Tunisians to unify behind the new movement and to accept the gains of the past 50 years, including the rights of women. Many also saw this as a call for former regime officials to come into the fold. Lilia Weslaty, critical of the project, writes in Nawaat:

Thus, a war of identity seems increasingly visible between the two major political camps in Tunisia. Between Ennahdha and RCD, some Tunisians are faced with choosing between the plague and cholera.

Tunisian blogger Sarah Ben Hamadi calls for action against the two fronts:

This…is the result of the absence of an opposition worthy of the name. That’s the real problem, the opposition is not organized and is not ready to be (a true opposition). Why do we gather behind Caid Essebsi when we could come together without him and without remnants of the old regime? A third way is possible and it must exist. I dreamed of a new Tunisia, opposite to that shown to us by Ennahdha, different from that spoken by Béji Caid Essebsi. It is not yet born, we must act!

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With a clear platform, no associations with Islamists or the former regime, and a decidedly non-elitist approach, the Tunisian Communist Party (POCT) appears to continue to gain ground in Tunisia. A recent poll has shown that POCT leader Hamma Hammami’s popularity continues to increase, now surpassing Ahmed Chebbi of the PDP. While polls are notoriously difficult to read in Tunisia, the numbers do correspond to what appears to be a solid grassroots backing for the long-time resistance leader. There is likely a limit to communist popularity in Tunisia due to the association many have with the party as atheistic, but it nevertheless seems to be showing a way forward for liberal, secular groups who have yet to galvanize grassroots supporters.

—————-

It was arguably a bad week for Ennahdha as party leader Rached Ghannouchi’s call on his supporters to march last Friday was rejected by the Interior Ministry. Following riots across the country, Ghannouchi had called on supporters to support sacred values (as a counter to the supposedly offensive artwork shown in La Marsa).

But with tensions high and violence widespread, the government finally decided that a march would only risk inflaming tensions. The Interior Ministry, led by Ennahdha member Ali Lariyedh, however, showed its ability to mobilize when necessary and take control of the situation. Speculation over Lariyedh’s role in the party will only increase in the run up to the Ennahdha party congress next month – rumors of his rivalry with Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali have been reported.

Finally, after the most difficult week yet for the government since their elections, rumors have been spreading about a possible split in the party between its more moderate and more conservative sides. While the rumors remain just that, many have speculated about the party’s ability to hold these two sides together. The discourse last week by many Ennahdha officials, which put blame on both artists and rioters, was condemned by many as too deferential to the party’s conservative branch.

In other Ennahdha news, Ennahdha party cofounder Salah Karker, who had been in exile for 20 years returned to Tunisia from France.

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Ettakatol, led by Constituent Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, announced a merger with the Tunisian Worker’s Party. Further evidence of political consolidation in Tunisia.

More on Tunisian political parties hereherehere, and here.

A news update from Tunisia

Due to some travel outside of Tunisia last week, I was unable to post many updates. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading to catch up on the news from Tunisia from the last ten days. I’ll be publishing more in-depth stories on political parties, salafist activities, and economic matters over the course of the week. Stay tuned.

Salafism

Salafi show of strength in Kairouan: Concerns over Salafist activities dominated the news in Tunisia and abroad. A rally by Ansar al Sharia in Karouan drew thousands of supporters. Leader Abou Iyad spoke about a return to a much more conservative country, including this comforting message “To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist,” he said. “We restrain ourselves.” Watch the video here. Good to know that however much they would like to attack tourists, they are showing restraint.

The rally was sparked by the ban on two convicted Moroccan preachers accused of supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks in Morocco in 2003. Some bloggers are dumbstruck, particularly by shows of support among the protesters for Osama Ben Laden.

Opposition blames the government: Analysts argue over whether the recent Salafist activity (violent and non-violent) is an attempt to destabilize the country – with the government response being limited. The Courrier de l’Atlas wonders how the government can propose democratic dialogue with protesters who think democracy is a sin. Slate wonders, whether amid the chants of anti-semitism, whether the Salafis are controleble or not. One analyst blames the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for treating the Salafis with kid gloves. Another that these events are proof that the revolution has been confiscated. But the government has said that perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted.

Tunisian jihadism in the news: Some accuse Ennahdha of complicity in the rise of jihadism, as reports showed increasing Tunisian jihadi activity in both Tunisia and abroad, notably Syria. Others asked how the movements could be stopped. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to address the issue of Tunisian combattants in Syria.

Violence in Jendouba, Kef, and Sidi Bouzid blamed on Salafists, and a homecoming: Reports say that there has been a return to calm in Jendouba after this past weekend’s clashes between Salafists and police. The French press picked up on the insecurity felt by locals in Jendouba. Sidi Bouzid saw Salafist elements attempt to close bars in the city. Some suggested moving the bars outside of town. A Nawaat contributor noted the increase in clandestine alcohol sales in the city, and blamed the alcohol sellers for an uptick in violence in the southern city. One lamented the lack of Tunisia’s national beer in the home of the Tunisian uprising. A brothel and several bars in Kef were also attacked by Salafists. Tunis’s main port reportedly welcomed dozens of Salafists from Sicily, causing a minor incident at the port of La Goulette.

Television station threatened, attacked: A Tunisian television station was attacked, reportedly by Salafist’s concerned over reporting about Salafist attacks around the country.

PM Essebsi death threats: Meanwhile, in April former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi received death threats from a Tunisian Imam during a public sermon. He filed a complaint and the judgment is expected today.

Social Movements

Reconciliation between unions and the government: Social movements continue in virtually every sector of the country’s economy. A meeting between business leaders, unions, and the government called for a new roadmap for labor relations. The roadmap is expected to take 8 months to complete. Analysts described the complex relationship between the three.

Ongoing protests continue: Some analysts wondered whether a protest by the unemployed would lead to Kasbah 4 – a reference to mass protests last year that toppled the first interim regime. Other protests continued among professional groups, including school teachers, airline employees, and doctors and pharmacists. A continued form of protest in Tunisia, especially in rural areas includes road blocks. One report states that road blocks have doubled in May, while the security situation continues to improve. Protesters in Kef attacked the government headquarters of the region over the lack of development projects in the government’s 2012 budget.

Foreign Policy

France: France’s foreign policy in the Maghreb remains complicated. Slate Afrique reports this week that France’s Hollande fully supports the regimes in Algeria and Morocco. This followed early gaffes by the new Hollande administration over comments relating to Western Sahara. While Hollande presses his democratic bona fides to Tunisia’s leaders, he continues France’s policies of supporting non-democratic regimes across the rest of the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Sana Sbouai looks at how Tunisia is viewed through the lens of French newspapers. The answer – it’s all about Ennahdha. Money quote:

The general feeling is that Ennahdha is the country and there is no other news. Everything seems to revolve around the Islamists. There is no real coverage of the economy, unemployment, young people’s lives, education, associations, civil society in general. Nothing about transitional justice, changes in government, ministries, no record of 100 days of government, nothing about the work of the Constituent Assembly on the work of the opposition or simply on expectations of Tunisians.

Tunisia: Mohamed el Dashan asserts that Tunisia is adopting a more muscular foreign policy after its leadership ushering in the Arab Spring. He argues that this will start with the Arab Maghreb Union, a long moribund project recently restarted by the Marzouki administration.

The Amero-Qatari conspiracy: Moroccan-Italian analyst Anna Mahjar-Barducci describes the fear of many Tunisians that the country is being manipulated from afar, in particular, by Qatar. She also notes that while Qatar sends $500 million to Tunisia in aid, it continues to host Ben Ali family member Saker el Materi, who may be in possession of up to $5 billion in stolen assets from Tunisia. Demdigest nods. Meanwhile, the U.S. donates millions more.

Independent Elections Commission

A press conference at ISIE on May 18 commemorated the body that oversaw last year’s elections. Political party leader Rached Ghannouchi of Ennahdha reaffirmed his party’s (the government’s?) stand that the ISIE should remain independent.

Ben Ali

A recent poll showing 42% of Tunisians supporting a return to Ben Ali’s regime sparked controversy. A prosecutor in Kef seeks the death penalty against the former dictator, accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, Roman artifacts reported stolen from Algeria turned up at Ben Ali’s family member’s houses.

Government

Scandal at the Constituent Assembly: Rumors over a secret pay increase for deputies sparked outrage among civil society. Some called for an investigation into all assembly spending. Opposition leaders took advantage, pledging to not take any increase in their salaries.

The salary scandal at the assembly follows on the footsteps of the voting scandal that continues to resonate, Wafa Ben Hassine is outraged. The same analyst despairs at the divide between assembly rules and actions, especially concerning the publication of committee schedules.

Market fire: The government denied responsibility for a fire that destroyed hundreds of businesses at a busy Tunis-area market.

Controversy swirled over a plan to blacklist 81 Ben Ali era judges. Dozens of judges protested at the lack of due process.

Ennahdha

A poll puts Ennahdha’s support at close to 50 percent, down from earlier this year, but above the total votes received in October’s elections. One critic wonders whether Ennahdha’s electoral victory is assured, noting that in the absence of a credible opposition, the constitution will be the only rampart against authoritarianism. One analyst claims that Ennahdha isthe other side of the same coin as the former ruling party, the RCD. He calls it an RCD halal.

Military training: A French analyst has made waves over a report in which he offhandedly stated that Ennahdha is providing military training to its supporters. Reports have not been substantiated by any other sources.

Marwan Muashar writes that Islam is compatible with democracy  – the west shouldn’t worry. Writing with Marina Ottaway at Carnegie, he calls Islamist political party development a work in progress, but assures readers that Ennahdha is indeed worthy of the term “moderate.” Cavatorta looks at Ennahdha beyond the personality of Rached Ghannouchi and to the aspirations of Tunisia’s pious middle class – conclusion – they want a thriving private sector and limited government interference in their lives.

Economy

Tunisian Central Bank Controversy: Reports of the imminent sacking of Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli remain unconfirmed. He remains a controversial figure in Tunisia due to his ties to the former regime and his support among foreign governments (he will also be the subject of a longer blog post here this week). Meanwhile, he is at the African Development Bank annual meetings this week to receive the award of best central banker in Africa for 2012.

Tunisia downgraded to junk: Tunisia’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status. Analysts claimed both a disaster while politicians condemned the ratings agencies. Nevertheless, the IMF pointed to signs of recovery in the country, but noted the risks of Europe’s continuing woes. The European debt crisis is dampening exports.

Tourism: Tourism receipts are increasing, but the industry is still vulnerable. One analyst describes how Tunisia can come out of the crisis.

Foreign Aid: One analyst questioned whether the G8 commitments from Deauville were being honored. The response – yes, but the Tunisian government must establish greater credibility. The State Department released a statement touting its Deauville commitments and Tunisia’s open government initiatives. Meanwhile, the EU released its roadmap for development funding in Tunisia – doubling its previous commitments. Finally, a report on Tunisia’s fast-changing telecoms market after years under the monopoly of state/family control.

Justice/Civil liberties

The Mahdia affair, which saw the condemnation of two Tunisians to 7 years in jail for posting images deemed offensive on Facebook, continued to outrage activists. IREX called for the convictions to be overturned. A report noted that 80% of Tunisians felt free to express themselves. It begs the question, what about the other 20%? The BBC reports on Freedom of Expression in Tunisia’s media. The Demdigest questions how Arab spring countries can effectively exclude former regime elements, who remain the countries’ elites.

A Balancing Act: Ennahda’s Struggle with the Salafis

My new article, co-written with Brandeis researcher Aaron Zelin, has been published at the Sada Journal of the Carnegie Endowment. An excerpt:

On a day when organizers had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise a black and white flag inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim testament of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.” On that day, March 25, a small group of protesters also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater. These controversial and heavily covered events raise questions over how the Tunisian government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, will handle growing conservative movements.

While much of the Tunisian and Western press has focused on the debate between Ennahda and the secular opposition, Tunisia’s ruling party has also faced criticism both from within its own party and from more conservative Salafi groups. Ennahda’s approach to instilling Islamic values in society contrasts sharply with that of Salafi trends: while the party believes that society should gradually, and through democratic institutions, adopt the principles it once lost under colonialism and secular dictatorships, many Salafis assert that democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators. This intra-Islamist debate may prove to be the true battleground in the ongoing transition.

Read the full article here.

Photo courtesy of Sada Journal.

Thinking about Arab autocracies as protection rackets

Daniel Brumberg‘s recent article in Foreign Policy caught my eye. He identifies the reason that Arab dictators were able to stay in power for so long – that basically they all shared the features of a mafioso protection racket. Here’s the pertinent paragraph:

I would suggest that we think about Arab autocracies as protection rackets. The latter pivoted around an exchange by which regimes provided a diverse range of groups — ethnic or religious minorities, the business sector, and secular activists — with a haven from the uncertainties of an open democratic process. If many elites accepted this bargain, they did so because they feared that competitive elections would produce assemblies that would undercut their de facto social or political liberties in the name of the majority. In the Arab world, autocracy with would-be democrats has been a long-standing phenomenon.

He then goes on to describe that in Tunisia’s smoother transition is due (at least in part) to the former regime’s repressiveness. He says (bolding  mine):

in Tunisia, a protection racket system that was far more closed and repressive than that of Egypt collapsed, thus setting the stage for genuine democratization. Several factors particular to Tunisia account for this more optimistic story. First, because the small, 30,000-man professional military had been long ago subordinated to the political apparatus, Islamist and secular leaders could not easily appeal to any authoritarian enforcer to arbitrate competing visions of democratic life. When the 135,000-strong security forces then demonstrated neither the will nor the capacity to violently repress the uprising, the crony-based ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party melted away, thus leaving Islamists and secularists with little choice but to make peace or fight.

Indeed, the near total collapse of the ruling apparatus created a relatively open and unchartered political field, reducing the opportunities for manipulation by all players. While secularists clearly feared that Islamists had a substantial organizational advantage, no party had sufficient information that might have tempted one or more to pursue transition modalities designed to serve narrow or selfish interests. Even when the September negotiations over the procedures for a constituent assembly seemed at their most polarized, everyone pulled back from the brink and compromised. Finally, the presence of a large urban middle class that cut across the Islamist-secular divide provided further incentive for cooperation. Thus out of the ashes of one of North Africa’s most repressive systems competitive democracy seems to be emerging.

Overall, I liked Brumberg’s article, but this strikes me as a bit over the top. Brumberg seems to conflate the RCD with the ruling government apparatus.

He’s correct that the RCD did, for the most part go away – though not of their own volition. In fact, after a period of laying low, many former RCDists tried to resurrect their fortunes during the electoral cycle. The reason they did not succeed (compared to the NPD in Egypt, for example), was due in large part to the electoral system, rather than their lack of trying. I would argue that without a party list, proportional representative election, we would likely see a lot more former RCDists in the Assembly today. The fact that the elections were based on political parties rather than personalities closed this door.

Brumberg then goes on to talk about the collapse of the ruling apparatus. Though this is perhaps implicit in his argument, I think it is important to further delineate what this collapse was, because it did not occur in the business sector or in the government – where those who were in power largely remained in power throughout the transition. Rather, the ruling apparatus was Ben Ali’s family, which had taken control of a large section of the Tunisian economy. This relatively small group of people was the target of most of the rage against the regime. To most Tunisians, it was not the RCD or corrupt bureacrats or bankers – but rather the family that forced those people to be corrupt. With the removal of the head, Tunisians were open to hearing different voices, secular, Islamist and otherwise.

One final point that is perhaps  the luck of history. In February, as strikes and sit-ins paralyzed the country – all of the political actors were able to coalesce around the figure of Caid Beji Essebsi. An octogenarian product of the Bourguiba regime, he was publicly seen as honest and trustworthy and among political actors he was seen as too old to pose a real threat to their interests (unlike Essebsi’s predecessor Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was seen as very close to the Ben Ali regime). Essebsi was all but forgotten in Tunisian politics at that point, and if the uprising had not taken place this year, but rather in a few years time, he may have been unable to step up. Essebsi was able to open the political space for the Ben Achour commission to do the important work of preparing for the elections and negotiating the ground rules of the transition between all political parties.

Law and order speech aimed directly at ordinary Tunisians

This morning Tunisian Prime Minister par interim Caid Essebsi gave a law and order speech that attempted to calm the country in advance of elections, now just 6 weeks away. Essebsi’s speech called on the security service to maintain order throughout the country, in particular through the application of the state of emergency law. Under the emergency law, the government has the right to forbid sit-ins and strikes, something that has become increasingly common in Tunisia since the revolution of January 14. Essebsi’s speech came on a day when police officers staged a protest (some call it a sit-in) in central Tunis. The Prime Minister confronted the police by calling their labor union illegal and ordering their return to work.

Bloggers in Tunisia have reacted so far with alarm at some of these measures, which they see as directed against protest movements that have received a heavy-handed reaction by the ministry of the interior. Most recently, an August 15 protest by magistrates was marred by violence from police officers (including plain-clothed officers) and heavy use of tear gas. Many politicians will be disappointed that Essebsi did not call for a simultaneous referendum with the election of the constitutional assembly aimed at ensuring a popular vote on the nature of the next government (parliamentary versus presidential).

The PM mentioned attacks that have occurred around the country in recent days, resulting in several deaths and serious injuries in clashes between security forces and malfaiteurs. It is unclear who exactly is behind the violence, many blame former partisans of deposed president Ben Ali, while others blame the situation on general lawlessness, including the release of hundreds of violent criminals during the height of the revolution.

Whatever the cause, Tunisians are worried about the security situation as well as the general chaos that has enveloped the country. Despite a return to relative stability in the capital, residents must face many new worries, from the malign to the mundane. Garbage worker strikes have made the once (mostly) clean capital, a visibly dirtier and less sanitary environment, while homeowners have to increasingly deal with break ins and vandalism to property. Support for sit-ins and strikes has dropped dramatically in the most recent poll by the Tunisian press agency. Essebsi’s move corresponds to an increasing feeling among Tunisians that the situation of the country is out of control and that the government must take control.

The interim government is in a difficult situation. Lacking a mandate to govern, but with extremely high expectations from its citizens, it has struggled to hold together until the October elections. Essebsi’s speech today is the government’s latest attempt to buy time until the elections. While it will surely arouse suspicions from the Tunisian activists and opponents outside the government, it clearly is aimed at addressing the anxieties of a population hoping for greater peace and stability in their lives.